How to train for a multi-day ultra

Keri Wallace speaks to running coach Rene Unser and ultra runner Sarah Morwood for some tips on multi-stage racing

The above article first appeared in the October-November 2018 edition of Trail Running

The above article first appeared in the October-November 2018 edition of Trail Running

Run trail? Check. Run far? Check. Run consecutive days? Check. Do all at the same time? Hmm…

The number of ultramarathons has increased 1000% over the past decade, driven by the appeal of combining adventure with a physical and mental challenge. Ultrarunning also offers a real sense of ‘journeying’, allowing runners to cross deserts, jungles and mountain ranges in a single race. But where do we go from here? What’s the next step for runners looking to explore the ultimate limits of their body and mind? 

Multi-day or stage racing involves covering an even longer distance than most ultras, but over a number of consecutive days. Some stages may be ultra-distance in themselves and some marathon-distance or less. These events vary widely in terrain and format but one thing is always true – you need to train, and train right. Fell runner and running guide Keri Wallace (founder of Girls on Hills) speaks to two experts with different takes on how to train for stage races.

How much time do I need to train?

Keri: “Not all stage races are created equal and how much time you need to prepare largely comes down to the specifics of your event. Generally speaking, the further the race distance and greater the ascent/descent profile, the longer it will take to prepare for.” 

Rene: “The amount of time largely depends on your base and run fitness prior to starting your stage-specific programme. I’d recommend allowing at least 16-24 weeks to prepare; with 3-4 days per week of running and roughly 8 to 14 hours of training per week.” 

Sarah: “There’s no formula that’ll work for everyone, and you can’t beat all-over fitness and drive when it comes to ultrarunning. I’m a big believer in mental stamina being as important
as physical stamina.”

How many miles should I run per week?

Rene: “For a novice the focus should be on accumulation of hours, with adequate rest days/weeks scheduled. To ensure you’re properly achieving this accumulation, I recommend following a progressive training plan.” 

Sarah: “In this day of Strava, you’ll see people racking up miles and shouting all about it. I think an all-round approach is better. Some weeks I’ll run 70 miles, some only 30. On the weeks I’m doing less miles, I’ll hit the gym, work on strength and conditioning and give my body a good framework to support the distance. I love my strength and conditioning work as much as running.”

What’s the longest run I should do?

Rene: “Most new ultrarunners will peak their longest training run at 36 to 42km (around 4.5-6hrs running). Use this as a dress rehearsal and try to match your training with the profile of your race.”

Sarah: “As a general rule you don’t need to do a training run of the same distance as the event you plan to do; the same way you’d never run a marathon in training for a marathon. For example, in training for a 100-mile race, I include a training run of maybe 30 miles maximum.” 

Is speed-work important?

Rene: “Focusing on gradually building endurance is more important than speed. It doesn’t matter how fast you run the first half of the race if you can’t finish!”

What kind of sessions are key for a stage race?

Keri: “Train on the terrain and profile of the race you’re training for. There are a number of sessions that will help prepare your body: one is running ‘doubles’ (twice in a single day). The aim is to achieve a greater distance in your long run, build in rest to allow recovery, and practise running on tired legs. The alternative is back-to-back runs on consecutive days.” 

Rene: “For beginners, back-to-back runs are (initially) a great way to achieve long run mileage with reduced injury risk.”

Should I enter races as part of my training?

Rene: “If you put too many races in your schedule, you’ll spend too much time tapering and recovering. I prefer one longer race early in the programme, then use a few 20k to 30k events mid-season, with no racing 4-6 weeks prior.”

Sarah: “Using a race as training is lovely. It means you get to enjoy racing with no stresses or aims – just a lovely day out.”

How do I taper my training – and is this important?

Rene: “The taper is very important and differs for different races and athletes. A typical taper for an ultramarathon is two weeks prior to race day, whereas some stage races require three weeks. It’s very personal and I encourage runners to make a taper plan and see how it works. After the race, go back and adapt if necessary, making small changes so you can hone in on what works best for you.”  

Sarah: “My weekly mileage drops by around half in each of the three weeks leading up to the event, so from 60 to 30 to 15 miles. More importantly, the intensity of the sessions decreases so
you aren’t over-stressing your body.”

What sort of pace should I aim for on long runs? 

Rene: “Focus on effort, rather than pace, particularly on long runs. Time on your feet, running long and keeping it steady is more important than pace.”

Sarah: “Long runs are about building endurance. Think ‘conversation pace’, ‘keep it up all day pace’ or ‘can I still sing and eat a sandwich while I’m running?’ pace. For most people starting out in ultrarunning, the trick is getting to know your ‘forever’ pace!”

What about energy and hydration during training?

Rene: “Fuelling is one of the most overlooked components of training for most runners, and I find most new ultrarunners under-fuel.”

Sarah: “It takes discipline and skill to feed yourself when running. A lot of people suffer from nausea during endurance runs, so training yourself to take on nutrition even when you don’t want it takes practice. There are many types of nutrition available, so try them and find out what works for you.”

What classic newbie mistakes can I avoid?

Rene: “There are three classic ‘rookie’ mistakes: not taking enough rest, training through injury and under-fuelling.”

Sarah: “You use a lot of calories training. Make sure you put them back! You’ll hear people talking about ‘race weight’, and the drive to be lighter for races can be quite consuming. But being undernourished is far more detrimental in the long run.”

Rene Unser is a running coach, race director and founder of PACE Sports Fitness, Canada. She’s
also a member of team Salomon Canada, Hammer Nutrition Canada and Defeet International.

Sarah Morwood is part of the MudCrew Ultra and Torq teams. Despite fracturing her kneecap in 2016, she completed the Eco-trail Oslo 80km, Centurion South Downs Way and historic Sparthathlon in 2017!